Within the genre of war cinema, it is very rare that you will find prominent roles for women. These films depict conflict on the frontline, in the war room or through political intrigue – spheres of influence where women were rarely present, at least in the past. To recall a war film with a female focus, the only avenue seems to be explicitly searching ‘women war films’ into Google – the BFI top 10 list gives suggestions that few mainstream audiences would be familiar with. This illustrates the point that, until relatively recently, very few popular war narratives have featured active female characters or told women’s stories.
Women’s roles in war films typically tell of how they helped at home, demonstrating the ways in which they supported their absent husbands and sons on the domestic front. The television series Land Girls and Call the Midwife feature such narratives, the latter including a relationship between two women, making it quite a progressive portrayal of the time. As a 50s-set series, it is a post-WWII story where the ramifications of conflict still run deep. It is important to represent the efforts of women during turbulent times as to not forget the part they played in history. Particularly during the Second World War, women assisted the soldiers and their country massively, taking over at factories to produce and supply weaponry whilst only receiving 60% of the standard male wage. The lack of female representation in the genre only serves to further a disregard for women’s labour in moments of historical conflict.
One great example of a female-led war film is Their Finest, released in the UK in 2017. Directed by Lone Scherfig, the movie acts as a twofold statement for female empowerment, tackling both the lack of female presence in the film industry and war films focusing on women. Following screenwriters Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) and Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin), Their Finest depicts the work within the British Ministry of Information during WWII. Catrin and Tom create scripts for propaganda films to boost morale in the UK during the Blitz. Though treated as the unimportant ‘spare hand’ initially, writing only the uninteresting female “chitter”, Catrin eventually gains extra duties in investigation and scriptwriting. Sharing the story of two young women who claim to have piloted a boat during the evacuation at Dunkirk, Catrin faces workplace sexism as bombs fall on the streets of London.
Their Finest is a wonderful instance of how film can aid the portrayal of women and their role in war. Not only does it accurately represent the history of gender and WWII, it also shows something a bit different. Why not educate yourself on the efforts of women during war? Alternatively, notable European examples of historical war films with women in prominent roles include Rome, Open City and The Battle of Algiers. These realist films are far more brutal, violent and authentic in their telling of the realities of war, as opposed to traditional Hollywood narratives.
Watch the trailer for Their Finest below: